The Real Economy
Updated: Feb 10
An essential element of a functioning community is that all roles are filled, that people individually and together do what is necessary for the success of the community. In this era of climate change and contracting energy resources, one important and potentially divisive issue is household roles.
Many American households these days are just fueling stations for people who sleep and microwave in order to return to work or school. When both parents work and the kids spend all day outside of the house, there are a lot of responsible habits that can’t be developed, habits that benefit the family members but also the community and the world at large. In order to make good use of resources and to live according to genuine human nature, every household will need a homemaker.
Our current ability to do without fulltime homemakers relies on technologies that we may not be able to count on in the future – electricity on demand, highly processed and storeable foods, gasoline for commuting, shopping, and entertainment, etc. In a sustainable and responsible culture, there will be meaningful, even essential, work to be done at home. I’ll outline a few contributions of homemakers to a post-industrial society and offer my own experimentation, its successes and its failures (as an example but not as evidence that I’ve perfectly achieved responsible living).
Eating Healthily and Avoiding Both Obesity and Malnutrition
Research unequivocally associates eating sit-down, home-cooked meals with better mental, physical, and social health. Good meals can’t just be popped in a microwave and dumped on a plate; as the supplies and technology for convenient, processed food get more scarce or expensive and pollution from packaging is destroying our environment, homes will have to have actual cooks. And cooking healthy meals from scratch, with fresh ingredients, takes hours a day.
Let me describe the two meals I cook every day, breakfast and dinner. The eggs that I cook many mornings come from my neighbor half a mile down the road. I walk the dogs down there once a week or so to buy the eggs. I also stay and visit for ten or fifteen minutes and catch up on local news while the neighbor’s dog tries to get my dogs to play with him. Then I walk home. That takes between thirty and forty-five minutes a week. I’ll often make sausage patties. I like my own sausage better than the tough, salty stuff from the grocery store, although I’ll use it sometimes. Generally, though, I buy ground pork from a local butcher, about a fifteen-minute drive away, then season it with my own herbs, either picked fresh that morning and chopped up or dehydrated the season before. I might fry potatoes – easiest if I have left-over baked potatoes to cut up. I have grown most of our own potatoes; they have to be washed and peeled and chopped. Finally I boil water for tea and let the loose leaves steep in a teapot to save the labor and waste of teabags. I use a teaspoon of local honey every morning to help with allergies; the honey has to be bought from local producers as well. In any case, breakfast takes me about half an hour to cook but several more hours to accumulate and prepare.
For dinner, too, I use as many ingredients as I can from my own and neighbors’ lands. Most days I leave myself two hours to sort, wash, peel, chop, knead, marinate, etc. Even when I use canned or frozen vegetables from last year’s harvest that are quick and easy to prepare, they took a long time to pick, clean, and preserve the year before.
Once the food is ready, we sit down and eat together. We talk about a lot of things, and sometimes argue, but the conversation helps us eat moderately and slowly. Our dining room is also our library, and the table is surrounded by books that we take down and read aloud almost every meal. At the table we review everyone’s day, an important ritual now that all of us have different jobs and schools.
I spend about two and half hours a day preparing these meals, if you count only the time I am in the kitchen on the day itself. The time is much extended if you factor in the growing, harvesting, preparing, storing, or shopping that goes into each meal. This effort seems like a terrible burden to many people. They are aghast at the idea of “wasting” so much time on food. But that is how much time food takes, whether we do it ourselves or outsource it. We may think ourselves liberated by the convenience of frozen meals and take-out restaurants, but we cannot believe that food preparation nowadays is all that quick and convenient – someone had to grow, pick, wash, process, and transport that food, at an extravagant cost of energy, even if we didn’t. And the person who made the Happy Meal or frozen dinner doesn’t really care about your family’s health the way you do. A society that aims for sustainable food habits – the most important foundation of life – has to recognize and respect the role of homemaker.
I live in the country, but my points about good eating apply equally to city living. City dwellers who can’t garden but who want to eat as locally as possible, avoid waste, and use energy responsibly will have to adjust as well. In the city, the sustainable homemaker will spend more time shopping, for example, going to local markets every day for fresh foods that come without excessive packing. Many European city dwellers have always done this by choice and don’t find it burdensome.
Using Alternative Energy Sources
In the winter, my family likes to heat as much as possible with our wood stove. We live in a place where wood is plentiful, and my husband takes several days every summer and fall to clean up neighbors’ fallen trees after storms in exchange for some of the wood. My husband is fortunate that he can take weekends and the occasional day off work to stockpile wood for the winter. But then the issue becomes keeping the stove going. On days when all of us are out of the house, we obviously can’t keep the fire burning; we set the thermostat down low, but we are still burning propane. If propane becomes too expensive or scarce, someone would have to stay at home most of the time to keep the fire going for both heat and cooking.
There are many alternative technologies that take more monitoring than our current fossil-fuel based energy. Houses and apartments designed to take advantage of passive solar energy need to be reconfigured during the day – blinds and windows have to be opened and shut to let in or block sunlight. Water pumping and storage systems have to be checked and decisions made each day based on rain, wind, stream levels, cistern levels, etc. Composting toilets need regular maintenance. Laundry has to be hung out and taken in. Even communications and entertainment, currently provided by means of fossil-fueled internet, television, stereo, etc., take time and effort, whether it’s writing and posting a letter or practicing musical instruments. People will have to spend more time at home.
City buildings, unlike many country ones, are not well adapted for alternative technologies. Some places don’t even have windows that open, and residents or workers are expected to use air conditioning or heat every day of the year. Better architecture will have to be devised for apartments in the city, bearing in mind passive solar advantages, air circulation, and sensible means of heating, and homemakers will be necessary to manage those systems throughout the day. (And we should think about how comfortable we need to be: even in buildings where the windows open, inhabitants are in the habit of adjusting the temperature to where they need to wear a sweater in the summer and wear shorts and a tee shirt in the winter.)
Right now local living is often dismissed as a fun fashion for the privileged , but there will come a point when everyone will realize the huge immediate and externalized costs of transporting almost everything around the world. These costs manifest themselves most powerfully through climate change, loss or change in employment, breakdown of communities, compromised quality, and loss of connection. Whether we choose to live locally right now or wait for local living to be forced on us, it will have to be done. And local living takes time.
Not every household has to do everything, of course – the ability to specialize and exchange is one of the great gains of civilization. But someone will have to make clothes, shoes, furniture, metal goods, and books. Someone will have to produce meat, eggs, honey, vegetables, and grain. Someone needs to provide soaps, lotions, medicines, and seasonings. Someone has to fix roads, teach school, repair houses, shear sheep, and sell things. For myself, I like making clothes – weaving, crocheting, and sewing; I make extra to give to my extended family and friends. I garden and preserve enough food every year to feed my family and give some away. I teach and write; I sing and play music. My husband and daughter can shear our goats, but I send the fleece to a mill to be spun. I get my meat and eggs and honey from neighbors. But even if I don’t do everything myself, I have to spend the time to go to the neighbors’ and pick up the eggs or stock up on soaps at the occasional craft fairs. Living locally takes time, and people cannot work at an office job sixty hours a week and still manage the slow process of production and exchange involved in it.
The Role of Employers
Employers need to understand the essential nature of homemakers as well as workers. One of these days they will have to recognize that the exploitative schedules they often force on their workers, the long and expensive commutes, the inefficient use of time and resources, can’t continue – not just because they are burdensome for workers but because they are contributing to climate change and social breakdown. It will then be to employers’ advantage to devise reasonable schedules that enable their employees to cook, do laundry, and care for their homes in ways that don’t add to global pollution.
The homemaker doesn’t need to be a single member of a household, although it may be. Several people with jobs that allow for the restrictions imposed by seasons and alternative technologies could share the homemaking tasks among them. As a college professor, I have a flexible schedule and am able to do many things at home that I couldn’t in a more cut-throat career, and I’m grateful for it. I still, however, use the clothes dryer more than I like because I can’t always take advantage of sunny weather to do laundry, as I could do if I were at home fulltime.
Homemaking Is Not Suffering
People, women especially, who have worked hard to earn the right to an education and fulfilling employment are probably reacting to my call for more homemakers with horror. Many of you love your outside jobs and don’t particularly like cooking or gardening. You worry that homemakers will be treated with the kind of neurosis-inducing lack of respect that made the 1950s the peak of psychotherapy and tranquilizers. It must seem that returning to having a more or less fulltime at-home family member is retrograde, that we would be losing all the progress we’ve made. But here are several things to consider.
First, the work of homemaking is in itself more interesting and varied than entering data in a government cube farm or answering phone calls from strangers – at least it is when it requires all the activities I’ve outlined above. Every day is different for homemakers. They get outdoors all year around, either to the garden or to the market stalls of the city. They develop a huge number of skills and make complex decisions that relate to their survival. Homemaking involves some physical activity, which is healthier than sitting all day, as many employees do. It produces immediate and essential results for people they care most about. It establishes connections and regular exchanges with neighbors – in other words, community.
Second, yes, things will take more time for the future homemaker. But what are we doing now with all the “extra” time we’ve bought with our fossil-fuel-based technologies? Driving long commutes. Being treated as wage slaves, because employers can. Watching dumb TV shows. Checking Facebook a hundred times a day. Putting on weight. Developing existential angst because our life lacks purpose, and medicating that angst by getting busier at all the aforementioned activities. If we spend more time making our own things and managing our own day-to-day survival, our lives will actually be more pleasurable rather than less.
And finally, whatever we think about it, I predict that the return to homemaking will be inevitable. Cheap and widely available energy will dwindle, unemployment will increase, and costs will rise as transportation becomes more prohibitive. A fulltime person at home can add value and efficiency to a household struggling to survive. You can decide now how to live sanely and sustainably, or you can be forced to as a result of our contracting economy.
The big thing, really, is attitude. What potential homemakers of either gender most fear is disrespect and being cut off from the vibrant and interesting lives that other people seem to be leading. But this is one area where the impending collapse of fossil-fuel-based industrial society is a great blessing. In a more realistic lifestyle, homemakers – who provide food, shelter, education, and medical care – will be not just respected but relied on for survival. Remember that the Ancient Greek word “economy” means housekeeping. Wall Street and multinational corporations are not essential to the real economy. Homemakers are.